The title is “Hold on Tight to Me.” Who is speaking it? Who is the addressee of that plea or command?
The first draft of this story actually had three narrators, Ma, her daughter, and Chao. I came up with the title as something that applied to all of them—Ma climbing the chimney with her daughter on her back; the daughter wishing that Ma could hold on for a little longer; and Chao pulling his grandma over the window ledge and into his bedroom. Even though the final version of the story is told by the daughter, I think of the title as the lynchpin—of wishing someone can stay with you even as they are pulling away or letting go.
I love the opening of this story, both matter-of-fact and bizarre: “Ma is scrabbling up the trellis again. She has already cast off much of this world as extra weight, including me and Chao, her six-year-old grandson, but the muscle memory of climbing remains.” There are so many different ways to read that opening. Is Ma literally climbing the trellis, clambering into Chao’s bedroom through his window? Or talking about it, the way she keeps returning to her memory of climbing a chimney to escape the Red Guards? Or dreaming about it, in a way her daughter can access, by, for instance, tracking Ma’s eyes staring at the ceiling? What are you imagining taking place here?
I wanted to ground the opening scene at a particular moment—the narrator pacing below Ma as she climbs the trellis—so it is meant to be taken literally. (I confess to scouring Home Depot’s online catalog of trellises to make sure there was some aspect of realism to all this.) But I love your second and third interpretations, particularly as they convey how trauma is generational and cyclical. In many ways, Ma never left the chimney. She climbs it every day. And she’s passed the memory and burden of climbing onto her daughter and grandson—by talking about it, by requiring constant care, by tumbling into Chao’s bedroom at night, so often that he himself talks about it to his teachers.
One thing I love about your writing is your descriptions that are startling and efficient, for instance when Ma is “staring at the ceiling, wearing a necklace of spit.” We picture it: Something disgusting is made strangely beautiful and tender. How do you come up with these images?
I love flash for this very reason—fine-tuning language because you don’t have a lot of real estate to unpack everything.
As a rule of thumb, if it’s a gritty image—take the spit example—I try reversing the natural inclination to use gritty language. “Ropy, yellow strands.” That gets oppressive quickly. It makes the reader want to rush past. So I look for something that slows the tape to 0.5x speed. As for how that process happens, I wish I knew! I agonize. I move one word around multiple times. I drink lots of tea and stare at my cats until I see double.
There’s a resistance to saying certain things out loud in this story. For instance, the narrator says, “I have to tell Chao what will happen soon.” The narrator is not naming the thing that will happen soon (Ma will die), even as she talks to her son about it. How did you figure out what to say and what to not say in this story?
A lot of this comes down to developing an ear for what feels real and true to the underlying narrative. So much of this story comes down to trying (and failing) to prepare for whatever comes next. The narrator beats herself up for not knowing exactly what to say or how to act. Her being able to precisely articulate to Chao that Ma is going to die soon would have come off as disingenuous. I did try writing the actual dialogue between a mother and her child as she tries to specify “what will happen soon.” But it sounded so artificial and, for lack of a better description, Hallmarkesque. Does naming the subtext add anything? Or does it just bog down the momentum? If so, I say get rid of it.
Another aspect to this is relinquishing control and giving the reader space to figure it out. So much of writing tends to be expositive, making sure to set up sufficient guideposts, leaving behind a visible trail of breadcrumbs, to assure the reader they’re on steady ground. But some themes are so universal that it almost feels like a disservice to spell it out completely.
As you know, I love your work! I was thrilled to publish your great story “Swindled” in Pithead Chapel in May. That one is also about grieving a lost mother. So I have to ask—are these stories anchored in reality? And if so, how long did it take you to be able to write about a for-real loss? My father died in January 2019, and I see in stories I was writing while he was sick, a lot of preemptive mourning, but pushed sideways (stories about dead friends).
Yes, particularly given that so much of the past year has served as fodder for themes of grief, loss, and family in my writing (as I’m sure it has for other writers). I think of death in terms of what has already happened and what’s to come, and my stories reflect that duality. To your second question, I don’t think I’m ever ready. It’s an iterative process, where I often just transpose or re-direct emotions to different contexts. I love your phrase “preemptive mourning.” It’s like pressing on a bruise—well, that’s going to hurt too much so let’s press right on the border of the bruise so I can prepare for and refamiliarize myself with what the full brunt of it will feel like.